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From left, Seaman Kenneth Kiper, Airman 1st Class Jonathan Burg and Airman 1st Caley Hayes relax last week in the Four Chaplains Warfighter Center of Excellence at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The center is open at least three days a week, with activities planned in December.
From left, Seaman Kenneth Kiper, Airman 1st Class Jonathan Burg and Airman 1st Caley Hayes relax last week in the Four Chaplains Warfighter Center of Excellence at Misawa Air Base, Japan. The center is open at least three days a week, with activities planned in December. (Jennifer H. Svan / S&S)

MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — The flock at the Four Chaplains Warfighter Center of Excellence is growing.

Since opening in August, the center has drawn about 40 people on a regular basis, according to Chaplain Capt. Matthew Boarts.

But while many come for the Wednesday night Bible study, any single U.S. military member at Misawa is welcome, regardless of his or her religious beliefs, say those who drop in often at the center.

“Religion is our cornerstone, but we’ve had agnostic people come in,” said Seaman Kenneth Kiper, 22, an analyst with U.S. Navy Information Operations Command at Misawa.

The door’s open to atheists, too, he said.

“It’s not just a discussion of theology but a discussion of where each person is in their own life, in their own spiritual walk,” said Airman 1st Class Jonathan Burg, 27, of the 35th Maintenance Squadron.

A ribbon-cutting last week officially opened the center. Airmen and sailors afterward relaxed on sofas in a cozy room where a large television screen was the centerpiece.

“Evan Almighty” played here on a recent movie night, Kiper said.

“If I didn’t have this, I’d be a dorm rat,” the sailor from Portland, Texas, said.

That was the impetus for the center — getting military singles away from the isolation of the dorms and giving them an alternative to the bars.

But reading scriptures together isn’t the only social activity.

“We don’t want this to just be churchy,” said Lt. Col. Steven J. Nicolai, the 35th Fighter Wing chaplain at Misawa. “We want to provide some good development opportunities.”

The group has gone camping and explored sites in northern Japan. A discussion on race relations followed a recent screening of the movie “Crash.” Events in December will include a chili cook-off, decorating the chapel sanctuary and a cultural exchange with on-base sixth-graders.

That emphasis on character development sets the center apart from similar efforts across the Air Force, according to one Pacific Air Forces official.

“The new big thing in the Air Force is Airmen Ministry Centers,” Chief Master Sgt. Steven Wachter, PACAF chaplain assistant functional manager, said while at Misawa last week.

The Air Force Chaplain Service is opening the centers “especially for airmen who reside in dorms, to provide a ‘home-like’ atmosphere with wholesome entertainment options,” according to a news release from Balad Air Base, Iraq, where one opened in May.

Wachter said several PACAF bases already have the centers, including Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, which opened a coffeehouse ministry in a renovated dormitory basement. The centers usually have video games and coffee bars, he said.

“They’re alcohol-free safe zones for people to go,” Wachter said. “It’s not a place to try and convert anyone, but to provide a safe, fun environment, a place to get away from everyday life.”

Airman 1st Class Caley Hayes, 20, has been part of the center since its beginning.

“It’s just a place where I could learn, I could grow, I could mature in my spiritual being,” Hayes said.

Center hoursThe Four Chaplains Warfighter Center of Excellence is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday and 5:30 to 9 on Wednesday evenings.

Regular events are scheduled for Friday and Saturday nights, with hours to be expanding soon, base officials said.

The center shares a building with the American Red Cross, a short walk from the dormitories.

— Jennifer H. Svan

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